Wesley Crusher has been involved in an accident at Starfleet Academy. His five-man flight team, Nova Squadron, has lost someone during a demonstration around the moons of Saturn, and now an inquiry has been opened into the cause of the accident. But when Wesley's friends and family aboard the Enterprise offer their help -- only to be pushed away -- it begins to seem that the young cadet is lying and concealing the facts of what really happened.
Making this episode was a series of fights behind the scenes, the first being whether to do it at all. Longtime Trek fans within the writing staff were eager to visit Starfleet Academy, a place talked of since the earliest episodes of the original series. But producer Rick Berman objected. Star Trek was about going into space, he said, not going back to Earth. He only relented when show runner Michael Piller convinced him that this episode could tell young people to "do the right thing" in regards to drug use or criminal activity. Even then, Berman had them scale back the intended severity of Wesley's crime, which had been meant to be much darker (and with a more obvious cover-up).
With the story approved, the scriptwriting was taken up by Ronald Moore, the man behind some of The Next Generation's more morally ambiguous hours. He championed new Trek intern (and former college friend) Naren Shankar to co-write with him, and the two of them concocted the ethical dilemma at the heart of the episode: Nova Squadron has attempted something illegal, risking their careers and getting their friend Joshua Albert killed. Wesley faced a choice. He could either stand with his friends and conceal the truth, or he could embrace a more idolized integrity and confess.
Moore and Shankar, the college friends, knew they ending they wanted: a band of brothers who put each other first, with Wesley keeping quiet for the sake of those closest to him. Michael Piller, an older family man who knew what he'd want his own children to do, firmly disagreed: this group had committed a crime, and Wesley needed to come clean and face the music. Personally, I think I side with Piller on this one. Were this, say, Ronald Moore's dark reboot of Battlestar Galactica (or possibly even Deep Space Nine), the situation would be more grey. But in the squeaky clean world of The Next Generation, the message that "the first duty" is to the truth feels like the appropriate one.
Even after Piller put his foot down and demanded his ending, Moore and Shankar tried to shade things the way they envisioned. Not wanting Wesley to rat out his friends, they had him keep quiet until finally the squadron leader, Nicholas Locarno, cracked and told the truth (taking the heat for the whole thing). This pleased Piller no better, who felt that just made Locarno -- a mere guest character -- the hero of the piece.
So finally, in a marathon overnight writing session, Moore and Shankar gave Piller what he wanted. They restructured the entire story to support the desired ending. They added scenes to stir more guilt in Wesley, such as the late Joshua Albert's father apologizing for his own dead son. They changed the threatened punishment; where the Squadron was originally to have been expelled (so that keeping silent would have required conviction), now the penalty was a slap on the wrist (so Wesley coming forward when he would have gotten away with it was the more courageous choice). Moore and Shankar restructured the story well, but to this day, on the commentary recorded for the Blu-ray release, they still defend their original ending.
Interestingly, if they'd gotten their way, the episode might not have had quite as long a life afterward. A few years after "The First Duty" aired, word reached the Star Trek writers that the episode was actually being screen for cadets in training at the United States Air Force Academy, as an affirmation of their adherence to morality and truth, and an embodiment of their credo: "I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do." Needless to say, a message of "bros first, screw the brass" probably wouldn't have resonated with them the Air Force.
Still, Ronald Moore and Naren Shankar do acknowledge pride in the finished episode. And deservedly so, in many ways. Continuing on the trend set by "The Game," Wesley Crusher episodes made after Wil Wheaton left the show full time were better than any episodes written while he was a regular. "The Game" rounded Wesley out by giving him a sense of fun and a love interest. "The First Duty" rounds him out by making him flawed. Until now, he seemed too perfect to be real (and this is what so many Trek fans found off-putting, I think). Here, we learned that he too can screw up.
Two elements were key in making it okay for perfect Wesley to be brought low. One is knowing that Picard,in his past, failed too. According to Michael Piller, it was a late addition to the script to hint at Picard's Academy indiscretion, and groundskeeper Boothby's role in helping him get clear of it. Tantalizingly (and wisely), the episode doesn't reveal exactly what this mistake was. Still, the parallels with Wesley's current situation are clear. And that redeems the error. As Piller succinctly put it in a later interview: "If you make a mistake when you're young and it's found out, you have to pay a price for it. It doesn't mean your life is ruined. It means you can still become Jean-Luc Picard."
The other key piece in paving the way for Wesley's mistake was the character of Nicholas Locarno. The leader of Nova Squadron had to be a charismatic personality with a powerful swagger, the sort of person you can believe others would follow even into foolishness. A Captain Kirk, in short. I'm not entirely sure Locarno gets there on the page (he comes off a bit too Machiavellian in some scenes), but much of the gap is made up in the casting of Robert Duncan McNeill.
McNeill clearly charmed the producers as much as the audience, as they cast him a few years later in Star Trek: Voyager. In fact, rumor has it that his Voyager character was originally meant to be Locarno... but that would have meant paying royalties to Ronald Moore and Naren Shankar for creating the character, for the entire run of the show. So instead, the Voyager creators kept the idea of a skilled pilot pulled straight from jail, cast the same actor, and set sail for the Delta Quadrant. (McNeill, for his part, said that he looked differently at the two characters. He saw Locarno as a nice guy at the surface who was bad deep down, while Paris was a good guy deep down who only seems irredeemable when we meet him.)
Robert Duncan McNeill may be the guest star most Trekkers will recognize from this episode, but the real big "get" here was Ray Walston as Boothby. His starring role in the 1960s' My Favorite Martian was only a small part of a decades-long career spanning hundreds of roles. He even returned as Boothby in two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. (Odd for a show about a ship stranded far from Earth, though the "Boothby"s of those two episodes were facsimiles.) Another notable guest star is Richard Fancy. Here he plays the Vulcan Satelk, though he's probably best known from Seinfeld as Elaine's boss, Mr. Lippman.
The episode is so crowded with guest stars and so focused on Wesley that most of the regulars don't get to do much. Still, there are a few good moments for Beverly Crusher and Captain Picard. Beverly's oddly detached reaction to learning about Wesley's accident makes sense when you think about her past loss of her husband Jack -- it's a sort of instinctual pulling away from dealing with the news. Later, her willingness to doubt satellite footage over Wesley's testimony shows her fierce devotion to her son. And the fact that Picard comes with her to all the hearings is a very subtle nod to the romantic thread that lingers between them.
As for Picard, the further tales of his wild youth (first mentioned in "Samaritan Snare" and later to be depicted in "Tapestry") continue to provide an intriguing contrast to the man we know today. The final scene of the episode is also strong, where Picard pushes Wesley to seize a second chance just as he himself once did.
But the towering scene of the episode, the one that probably makes the whole story worth telling, is the scene where Picard confronts Wesley, having guessed the truth of the accident. The dressing down is severe and uncomfortable. Patrick Stewart gives a remarkable performance. If you could have the chance to live in Star Trek's future, with the price being that you'd have to bear Picard's disappointment coming at you full like in this scene, I think most people would stay put in the present. The scene is also well written (with a poignant callback to "Encounter at Farpoint") and well directed (with a striking close-up on Picard).
- The flag at Starfleet Academy is shown flying at half mast, a nice detail. Another great detail was the Academy's Latin motto: "Ex astra, scientia" (or, "from the stars, knowledge"). This paraphrased the mission patch of Apollo 13: "Ex luna, scientia."
- The exterior scenes at the Academy were filmed at the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, the same place where the alien planet from "Justice" was shot.
- In an odd moment that slipped through the production process, the set for the Academy "dorm room" used a regular door with hinges and a handle. Rick Berman reportedly flipped out when he saw the footage, and had them put in a rather goofy electronic sound effect to make the door seem more futuristic. (As Ronald Moore jokes in the Blu-ray commentary, "Subspace door handle engaged.")
- In the same commentary, Moore also reveals that in his earliest vision of the story, he wanted to go all the way and have Wesley be expelled from Starfleet Academy. He argued that Starfleet didn't seem like the best fit for Wesley (an argument he would ultimately win in season seven, it seems). Free Wesley to go start his new life, Moore argued, which he now says could well have been from his own autobiography.
- Speaking of the Blu-ray, this was another episode where some original film footage went missing. Unlike the last time this happened, the 37 seconds of upconverted SD images are very noticeable, looking like a soap opera style bit of "airbrushing" with soft light.
- The Blu-ray also includes a couple of deleted scenes. There's a largely unnecessary scene where Beverly Crusher consoles the father of the dead cadet. But there's also a nice, short scene where she confides to Picard that she knows Wesley lied to her. It's nice to see that she isn't completely naive about what's happening here.
- References, both real and fictional, abound in this episode. There are the real names of many of Saturn's moons. The bell used at the hearing is a callback to legal proceedings in multiple classic Star Trek episodes. And the Yeager Loop is named for Chuck Yeager, the pilot who first broke the sound barrier.